Here's where it all started. A nice patio, but one that we didn't use very much. The old sandstone pavers are great, but they made for a pretty uneven surface and keeping the grass between the cracks down was kind of a pain in the butt.

Same patio, different view. (Note, too the old, decrepit, deck/porch thing on the left.)

The new deck plans moved the stairs toward the back of the house. (Near that red chunk of wood at the top of the photo.) Instead of walking down the old brick path, we'll use the patio sandstone to make a path through the yard down to the driveway. This required getting rid of the shitty old picket fence.

More of the fence, drastically in need of some Tom Sawyer-ing or, in this case, complete removal!

Fence removed! (Except for the posts...)

Fortunately, the fence posts had not been set in cement. This made removing them relatively easy. When wiggling and lifting wasn't enough, I grabbed a hunk of rope, tied a slip knot around the base, threaded a broom handle through the other end, and lifted the post right out.

My second in command looking for the snake we'd disturbed the day before when we pulled a bunch of rocks out of the bank.

A view of the "garden" sans fence.

And the now empty hole where a fence post once stood. (Otis promptly filled these holes with rocks, sticks, leaves, and anything else that would fit.)

A once proud fence. (Some of those posts were still in pretty good shape. I saved them and they came in very handy during the next phase of the project.)

A heap of splinters and rusty nails waiting in the driveway for a curious, climbing toddler.

OK, next step: remove all the old sandstone pavers from the patio. This, like most phases of this project, was easier said than done. These fuckers are heavy! I decided to spring for a wheelbarrow and was glad I did. Combined with the rocks that made up an old retaining wall next to the driveway (which wasn't really retaining anything any more), the patio pavers amounted to quite a stash of Potsdam sandstone. This is about 1/3 of it.

Here's another 1/3.

Over the years, a huge lilac bush had started to take over the patio. When I was designing the deck, I figured: "why not maximize our deck space and reclaim the whole patio?" (Supposedly, by building above an existing patio, there wouldn't be any need to go beyond the simplest building permit.)

So I hacked the lilacs back!

Some of the rocks were ridiculous. I found this one underneath some of the nicer pavers on the surface. The real monster was that sandstone lintel lurking in the lower left...

This thing was a monster! I could barely nudge it by myself and then only with long 2x4 levers wedged into dugout holes. At this point I wasn't sure where it was going to live and I had no idea how I was going to move it. (Maybe on a couple of rollers...?)

Here's the patio sans patio. Note the cut back lilacs, graded slope, and raked dirt.

Another view.

OK, now for something a bit more fun. The old porch/deck (upon which I was standing to take this photo) had to go. Demolition time.

Here's the last known photo of the old porch.

The railings were the first to go. The deck boards on top were next.

And here's the frame of the thing.

Piece by piece, the deck came down and was added to the pile of splinters and rusty fasteners in the driveway. Given how rickety the porch had become, I was surprised to find that it had been sitting on concrete piers all along.

There was a small patch of day lilies and irises next to the porch. Our neighbor Gail helped me dig these up and put them in buckets to deliver them to our friends Jerod and Christi who had just bought a house a few blocks away.

Note, too, the sad state of affairs under the old door...

Let's get a closer look...

The flashing between the old porch and the house (a small bit of sheet metal nailed to the siding) left a lot to be desired and the old hardboard siding was in pretty bad shape underneath. Some of it just fell away when I took off the porch.

Also of note in this picture: the useless old doorbell wires that I tripped on a dozen times before just ripping out and the orange juice bottle that became the official container for all the old, bent, rusty, worn-out screws and nails I removed/found during this project.

Measuring the old siding boards. Some of them would have to be replaced and I wasn't sure if siding came in standard sizing. You can really see how poorly the hardboard stands up to weather.

During the planning phase of this project, I decided that the best way to anchor the deck to the house would be to attach a ledger board to the exposed beam underneath the back room. I removed the lattice that had been hung under the back room to get a better look at this beam and in doing so I noticed that the base of the corner post had been buried under a couple inches of dirt.

A bit of excavation revealed some substantial rot! If I was going to be putting even more weight on this corner, I'd have to replace this post completely. A builder friend of ours suggested jacking up the corner of the house to swap it out. Noting the look of horror on my face, he assured me that it was withing the realm of my capabilities and that I could do it with a couple car jacks.

The old post consisted of a tripled up 2x6, attached to the beams above with a galvanized hurricane tie. (Note how few of the holes in the tie actually had nails in them!) A tarred shingle was used as a cap for the post, presumably to protect the end grain from rot. All in all, not a very impressive setup.

I fashioned a new post in the same fashion: tripled up pressure treated 2x6s. I tied the whole thing together with a set of TimberLOK fasteners.

Quality tools are important for precision work of this nature. You can tell this is a top-notch tape measure by the care they took to spell "Port JeffOrson" correctly.

Then, the moment of truth. My buddy Jerod came over and we very slowly used a couple of jacks to lift the corner just enough to loosen the load. Remember those 4x4 fence posts I'd dug up?! (Note the idiotic placement of the lower supports for the right-hand jack on top of the concrete pier. This, of course, got in the way the first time and we had to redo the whole lift a second time.

Much to our surprise, lifting the corner of the house was not at all difficult!

The post came out easy and no wonder! The area of half-decent wood left supporting the post amounted to maybe two square inches. A terrifying realization. (On the other hand, it's more likely an indication that the other posts supporting the beams in this corner were working very well.)

We set a galvanized post base on top of the pier, popped the new post into place and lowered the house. It worked! Everything was level!

The next day, however, I decided I had some reservations about the whole thing. I wasn't happy with the exposed area on top of the post base for one thing. But, more importantly, I noticed that by rotating the new post 90 degrees (for aesthetic reasons) I'd left one of the beams relatively unsupported. Note how the right-hand beam in the picture above is held up only by a dubiously attached joist hanger.

So we jacked up the house a third time.

I also wasn't very happy with how the post hung over the edge of of the post base. So I took advantage of the opportunity and filed out the hole in the bottom a bit. I bought a big pressure-treated 6x6, cut a section to length, and replaced the post.

(Cutting the 6x6 was easier said than done! None of my saws were big enough to do it in one pass so I had to hit each side with the Skil saw and then use a hand saw for the last little bit in the middle.)

Overall, I'm much happier with the results. The new post is much stronger and safer from rot than what was there before and the beams above it are supported well. The post isn't centered on the pier, but short of digging out the old concrete there wasn't anything to be done about that!

While we're down here: the underside of the back room. We're pretty sure this room used to be just a screened in porch. It's very cold in the winter and although it's dry inside, there isn't much protection from the elements. In addition to the new deck we're also going to insulate and refinish this room. I'm not doing the insulation, though. We're hiring out for that part of the project!

Alright, time to get started on the deck. The first order of business was to attach a ledger board to the existing house. Here's a shot of the beam mentioned above (taken before I ripped out the old porch). It's a tripled up 2x8 sitting on similarly tripled up 2x6 posts (which in turn are sitting on concrete piers that presumably go down below the frost line).

The first big conundrum of the project consisted of figuring out how to attach the ledger to the beam.

The main issue with this conundrum was that, although I had direct access to the beam, there were some obstacles in the way. There was a board mounted in front of the beam with about an inch of (mostly empty) space behind it. This is what the siding was attached to. The problem was that the board was hanging down past the top of the beam. I didn't really know what was behind the board so I had to figure out how to get my joists attached to the house without messing around too much. On top of that, my deck plans called for 2x10 joists kept flush at the bottom with the beam.

The idea that I came up with was to essentially bring out the surface of the beam by layering boards out in front of it (the "new spacers" in the diagram above). I wanted the surface to be flush with the siding board. This turned out to be tricky, though, since the siding board wasn't exactly parallel with the beam.

At first I was going to use a pressure-treated 2x6 with a 1/4" plywood spacer behind it. I didn't like the plywood not being pressure-treated though. In the end I used two lengths of 5/4x6 deck boards since that was closer to the average depth from the front of the siding board to the front of the beam.

This decision was aided by several helpful folks from the Internet. I posted my problem on some forums (fora?) and got several helpful replies. One person suggested attaching the joists directly to the beam by notching out the top corner to get around the siding. This was an intriguing idea, but it seemed to me that notching the 2x10s would effectively turn them into 2x6s and I was concerned that they wouldn't be as strong.

After removing the old porch and some of the rotten siding, I ended up taking the lowest siding board off temporarily. I wanted to see what kind of stuff was under there. What I found was interesting: all kinds of stuff! In this photo, sitting on top of the black beam (from L to R) you can see some fiberglass insulation, one of the joists under the floor in the back room (supported by a smaller horizontal board for some reason), a new 2x4 stud, and an old stud. I marked where all of these were and put the board back.

And then it was time to hang the ledger board! This part of the house was too long for a single board (17' 7") so I ended up using a full 8' board and cutting a 10' board to length. I marked the location of the various studs, joists, and nails behind the ledger as well as the future locations of the joist hangers and drilled pilot holes along the length of the board. Then, with my pal Jerod, we got it flush, level, and clamped. I bought a long 1/2" bit to extend the pilot holes through the beam and we hung secured the board with galvanized carriage bolts, washers, and nuts.

The ledger is in place! Here it is with a bit of Z flashing sitting on top.

This was probably the worst part of the project: drilling holes for the concrete piers. Seeing as how this is Potsdam, the frost line is pretty deep. 48" deep, in fact! That means that to avoid things moving around due to frost heave I needed to dig some pretty deep holes.

My book (Decks 1-2-3, from Home Depot) suggested renting a gas-powered auger to speed things up a bit. In retrospect, it would have been much easier to dig the holes with a shovel...

I laid out the deck using batting boards, mason's string, and the Pythagorean theorem, and marked the locations of the piers.

The auger (this one was a Little Beaver brand auger) comes in three parts: the drill bit(s) shown above, the engine cart, and the torque tube (shown here behind the cart). One end of the torque tube goes into the cart, the other into the handles at the end of the flexible shaft. This makes the hand-held part of the machine much steadier.

It all looked good in theory, but actually drilling the holes was a motherfucker. The drill is pretty powerful, but every time it hit a rock bigger than four inches diameter, the whole thing seized up. Ditto if the bit got too excited and started drilling faster than it could carry the dirt up and out. To get to 48" I had to first drill the full length of the one bit, then take the thing apart and add in the extension bit. I fucked up my arms, legs, and hands pretty bad just holding the damn thing. (I even sliced off most of my middle finger pad trying to loosen up the ball plunger that held the two bits together!)

Three intense hours later, though, I had four deep holes. I was under the gun to finish since the code enforcement officer was scheduled to come by at 8:00 the next morning. (As it turned out, she forgot her tape measure and, instead of being real picky about the depth of the holes, just eyeballed it and said they were fine.

These fuckers were deep!

Calculating the amount of concrete I'd need.

I rented a cement mixer from the hardware store and Jerod and I got to work. The mixer was a piece of shit. One of the legs fell off almost immediately, and we had to keep on jiggling the power cord to keep the motor running. (At one point we decided enough was enough and disassembled and rewired the plug end of the cord. But then the motor end of the cord started shorting too. Ugh.)

By the end of the session, it turned out I was one bag short and had to run back to Lowes. By this point, the mixer gave up altogether and I ended up mixing the rest with a shovel.

We got the holes filled, though! Each hole was fitted with an 8" Sonotube, secured in place with more batting boards. The bottoms of the holes were flared out a bit (hopefully enough!) and we put a bit of gravel at the bottom. Concrete went in next and when we got to the top we inserted a 1/2" galvanized J-bar in the middle to attach the post bases too. Miraculously, the pier placement worked out perfectly. (Well, almost... Two of the piers were off by a few inches, but the two fuckups ended up canceling each other out. You can see, however, that the three that need to be in line were nicely lined up.)

One thing I would've done differently: I should have worn a dust mask the whole time. We put them on after the first bag, so we probably didn't suck up enough dust to get cancer, but cement clouds are nasty shit.

I didn't know what to do with the excess cement, so I poured it into a little ditch and made a concrete pancake.

The main beam! A triple 2x8, held together with more TimberLOKs in the same fashion as the the original corner post for the house. Since the only weight on this beam will be directed straight down on top of it, I had to put a screw only every 12".

The beam turns 45 degrees in the middle and you can see my miter cuts at the end. I left an 1/8" gap in case the wood wanted to move around a little.

Next it was time to start lining up the joists. I cut and place three joists to get the whole thing squared up before securing the beams to the posts with more galvanized post caps and nails. I put one on each end and one where the two beam segments met up and measured all of the edges and diagonals at least a dozen times. (You can see in the previous picture that I had to adjust the middle joist several times to make sure everything was square.)

Another view of the posts, beams, and initial joists.

And another!

(That big square stone, by the way, used to be at the bottom of the original steps. When this is all done, it will again serve as the landing for the stairs, just in a different place.)

Once the main frame was squared up, I measured and cut the rest of the joists. Here the long joists are ready to go while the joists resting on the diagonal beam are waiting to be cut. I tried snapping a chalk line on these diagonal joists to get marks for cutting but when this turned out to not be very accurate drew a pencil line with a long straightedge instead.

Once the joists were cut to length and secured in place with the end joist, it was time to put in the blocking. These smaller hunks of 2x10 help prevent the joists from twisting and bowing and generally make the deck much more stable. Most of them are nailed in, but we had to use joist hangers in a couple of places (either because a doubled up joist was too thick for 3" nails or because I wanted to keep an outside joist face clean for aesthetic reasons.

Another view of the blocking with expert hammerer Erin's Chucks and hammer in view.

I tried several different types of fasteners for the diagonal joists before settling on more TimberLOKs.

I picked this shitty board for the end joist since it won't have very much weight on it from the decking.

One of the more frustrating things I've learned with this project is how inconsistent the actual dimensions of lumber are. I got lucky and mostly had boards that were pretty similar in size. I discovered, however, that one of my joist boards was about a quarter inch thicker than the others. I had to make all of the tops flush for the deck boards, so to make everything sit nicely I had to notch out the bottom of the joist around the beam.

The beams and joists are all topped with self-adhesive flashing tape. This was a bit of a debate. My book (a Home Depot book) recommended using it, but Home Depot didn't carry it! Lowes didn't either. (And when I asked, employees at both stores looked like I was crazy!)

The Internet confirmed, however, that it could only help prolong the life of the deck, so I bought some on Amazon.

I hadn't wasted much wood at all by this point. But then I went and cut all of my 4x4x8s. As soon as I had finished I realized that I had a typo on my lumber shopping list. I'd meant to write 4' 3" for the railing posts, but copied it down as just 4' instead. All of the railing posts were 3" too short. I was pretty paranoid about making the railing to code, so all of these posts were wasted wood. Forlorn, I drove back to the lumber yard.

The next really stressful part of the project had to do with how to anchor the bottom of the steps. Since the piers for the deck went below the frost line, I didn't want the stairs to be subject to heave. (I was afraid of risking the stairs wrenching themselves free of the end joist or messing up the railings up above.) I turned to the Internet once again! I posted my dilemma in about six different forums and got some ideas.

Oh man, was I stressed about this! I spent a whole day, from 5:30am to 11:00pm poring over pictures, consulting building codes, staring at the site, and posting to forums. I think that what I did should be pretty solid though.

In the end I went with a 4" concrete slab sitting on top of two concrete piers extending down below the frost line. I put a bit of re-bar in it, too, to keep the whole thing nice and solid.

Time to get digging! I decided to not fuck around with the auger this time and dug the thing myself. First I spread a tarp (a stupid idea in retrospect, since most of the extra dirt was going right there anyway) and marked out an area larger than the outline for the slab.

Measuring the hole with the 2x4 frame I'd made for the slab. (I didn't want to do any more digging than I had to!)

It's hard to tell, but this hole is a little more than 4' deep. It rained several times during the excavation, leaving me standing in several inches of muddy water. By the end of the dig, I was down up to my chest in a narrow hole!

Note the gray wire on the left-hand side. This is not the kind of thing you want to run into while digging! I was particularly surprised for two reasons:

1. I'd already called 811 for a Dig Safe report. None of the participating utilities (including National Grid) reported anything buried in the back yard.

2. There is already a set of overhead power lines leading out to the shed. I figured that any wires going from the main house to the shed would be part of this bunch.

Fortunately, I didn't sever the wire anyway. Digging around it was a pain, but what're ya gonna do?!

They sell tamping tools. I made my own.

Here's the finished slab! It came out pretty good. Two problems:

1. My tamping was insufficient. It rained the next day and much of the gravel/dirt around the slab sunk down about 6". No big deal, I'll fill the gaps with more gravel.

...and...

2. I did not sufficiently vibrate the sides of the 2x4 slab frame I'd made. This resulted in gaps and "honeycombing" in the sides of the slab. I should probably fill them to avoid damage from water/ice.

My original plan was to have all of the deck boards running parallel across the whole deck. This would've been fine if not for the fact that the deck is 17' 7" long and deck boards only come in lengths up to 16'. The solution was to put a picture frame border around the outer edges of the deck. This, of course, made things a little more complicated. Hence the excessive blocking between those last two joists.

An unfortunate byproduct of said "excessive blocking": the outer joist bowed outward a little bit. Dammit.

I'd been putting off cutting the stringers for the stairs. Partially because I was saving them as dessert and partially because I was a little nervous about it.

Here's the first set. I followed the directions in my book. They recommended calculating the dimensions and using brass stair gauges on a large framing square to draw the outline. You use a circular saw for most of each cut and finish with a handsaw or jigsaw. Once you have one stringer cut, you can trace it to cut the rest. Here the are lined up. They look pretty good here, but...

When I put them in place, they looked like shit. It's kind of hard to tell from this photo, but the treads were really inconsistent and far from level. Look at the two boards I laid on top. The upper one definitely slants further back than the lower one. And compare the upper one to the next step up: they're far from parallel.

Sarah thought it looked OK, but I decided to re-cut everything. I bought a couple more 2x12s and drew the outlines.

This time I measured the fuck out of the thing!

Part of the problem with the first batch was that I was using an imprecise measure method for the first cutout and then starting each subsequent cutout from the previous. This meant that small inaccuracies became much bigger inaccuracies by the end. For my second go at it I took every possible measurement in SketchUp and made sure that everything was lined up when I drew it on the board.

(One extra lesson: 2x12s aren't always 11.25" wide. The ones I bought were 11.5" wide. It took me a while to figure out why things weren't adding up!)

Maybe I put the flashing tape on under the wrong conditions. Edges and corners kept on peeling up. I bought a wallpaper seam roller (not "steam roller," despite what the guy at Lowes thought) and gave everything a second pressing. This seemed to do the trick.

Some professional Saran wrap waterproofing there!

(Later on, I discovered that this great idea was not actually a great idea. In my attempt to keep the rain off the siding, I inadvertently made it worse. The tape absorbed some of the water and held it there against the board. When I went to take it off, it peeled off a large strip of old paint.)

Time to do the railing posts!

I fucked up big time here. When I wrote down my lumber shopping list, I accidentally wrote that I needed 16 4x4s at 4' when in fact I needed each of them to be 3" longer. The helpful guy at the lumber yard sold me 8 4x4s at 8'. Like a numskull, I went ahead and cut each of them in half without really thinking about it. I quickly realized that each of them was too short and drove back to the lumber yard to buy 8 more 4x4s, this time 10' long.

I pre-drilled pilot holes on the drill press. Next I measured from the top and drew a line where the top of the joist was supposed to be. I clamped a chunk of scrap 3x3 right on that line and rested the post on the edge of the joist. Then I strapped a post level to the top, inched it into position and clamped the whole thing two more times. I finished drilling the holes and tapped a pair of carriage bolts through to hold the whole thing together. Each of the top bolts is also fitted with a deck tie back to transfer some of the rotational force of the railing post to the blocking behind it.

Half of the posts in place.

Once they were all up, I fretted about how tall they looked. I consulted the various building codes that seemed to apply to this project and threw up my hands in frustration. I had initially thought that the railing had to be 42" high. Once the posts were in place, though, this seemed ridiculous.

To the best of my understanding, 42" is for commercial decks. Residential deck rails need only be 36" above the deck. So I took them all down and cut 6" off the top of each one!

I set myself back a couple days when I realized that since I spent so much time cutting the stringers I might as well put flashing tape on them too. I ordered another roll on Amazon and waited.

I ended up getting some concrete repair paste and filling in the honeycombing around the edges of the slab. It looks like stucco.

This part was fun! I rented a hammer drill from Ace, drilled through the 2x4 bracing I'd cut, and tapped a couple of sleeve anchors down into the concrete. A sleeve anchor consists of a threaded bolt with a semi-loose casing down at the end. You tap it into a hole, slip the washer/nut, and tighten. The bolt has a reverse tapered end so when the tension on the nut pulls it up, the sleeve is forced to expand in place.

I cut a couple boards and had a baby!

We were gone for several days, so these boards were left out in the sun. Look how much the middle one warped! (Notice, too, the nicely routered edges!)

I had to cut a bunch of notches to allow a 1" overhang.

I'm, like, 90% happy with my mitered cuts.

Some of them weren't as good as others.

I don't like the outer two here, but the inner one's OK.

The 90-degree meet-ups came out pretty good, though!

Before putting down the main section of deck boards, I realized I was going to have to put in a bit more blocking, this time on a diagonal. Without these extra diagonal blocks, the boards coming in at 45-degrees to the boards shown here would've been unsupported on their ends.

I wanted everything to look as uniform as possible, so I rigged up this little layout jig. You put it down on the deck board, slide it over against a joist, and give each of the two nails in the middle a little tap with a hammer. You're left with two small indentations for evenly spaced deck screws.

Of course, most of the boards weren't exactly straight. But they were flexible enough to bend into shape. Traditionally, you're supposed to jam a chisel into the joist and use it as a lever to wedge an unruly board into place. I didn't want to compromise my flashing tape, so I had to come up with some elaborate alternatives.

Deck boards about halfway done! (Buzz the dog, my helper for the day, wasn't much help.)

And now they're all in! Miraculously (and thanks to checking for square every two or three boards) everything was still parallel by the time I got to the house! I had to rip one skinny board for the last row, but it looks just fine.

Otis tests for stability.

Another view of the completed top.

Next step was putting in the treads and risers on the steps.

The treads are full-width deck boards cut to length...

...and the risers I had to rip to half the height between each step. And, of course, all of the ends and edges got rounded over with the router!

I'm pretty pleased with these tight notches! (Hopefully they won't split the boards when everything dries out.)

As I got closer to the end, I picked up the pace. (Unfortunately, this also meant taking fewer pictures.)

With the deck top in place, all that was left was the guardrail. I went with a classic design: 2x4s screwed to the inside tops and bottoms of each post, 2x2 balusters screwed to the outside of the 2x4s (with chamfered bottoms!), and 2x6 cap rails all around.

It went up pretty quickly, although I did end up wasting bunch of wood. I was using the adjustable work stop on Dad's miter saw to cut the balusters to length and didn't realize that I was bumping it out of place a little with each cut. I cut about 50 balusters too short before I realized what was happening. Another trip to the lumber yard...

Here's a better view of the guardrail construction. My book recommended using a 2x4 to space the balusters and check each one for plumb as I went. I came up with a better solution. I took a long, skinny scrap board and marked the widths and spaces of for about 8 or 9 balusters' worth of guardrail. Then I centered the pattern between each pair of posts and transfered the marks to the 2x4 railings. This made the process a lot faster and helped hide any non-plumb-ness in the rail posts. I drilled pilot holes in the top and bottom of each baluster and they went up in no time.

The railing on the stairs was pretty much the same thing. The cap rail (routered, of course) extends out a bit and the balusters were miter cut on the tops to match the angle.

And the railings required a few more fancy cuts.

But then the deck was done!

My favorite part is the natural lilac privacy wall. We left a bit of overhanging branches for shade. Hopefully things won't get too messy in the fall!

Inaugural deck beers. It's official. (The arms on the right belong to Jerod and Erin, to whom I am grateful for their hammering, feedback, and moral support!)

Here's a perspective shot of the whole deck from the SketchUp model I made.

Overhead plan view..

The footing layout.

The south elevation.

The west elevation.